By Laura Pappano
On the heels of a compelling World Cup and on the eve of the 2012 Olympics, Women’s Professional Soccer announced today that they are suspending the 2012 season – with plans (maybe hopes?) to return to play in 2013.
The news, for those who recall the end of WUSA in 2003 and promises of revival (remember months of static websites?), raises concerning questions about why it’s so tough to launch and sustain a women’s pro league. And whether this move is a stab at regrouping — or a last gasp for a troubled structure.
Why the suspension? The official blame is the “lengthy and expensive legal battle with a former owner” – meaning the ongoing tussle with magicJack owner Dan Borislow, whose league membership was “terminated” in October following rule-breaking and public remarks critical of the league. He, in turn, filed suit. And – yes – both sides are now battling it out in court.
In a conference call with reporters this afternoon, WPS CEO Jennifer O’Sullivan suggested that the problem, however, was bigger than Borislow. The league, she said, “has been faced with a series of challenges and difficulties throughout the past year” adding that “Mr. Borislow has been a lightening rod for those issues.”
O’Sullivan said Borislow had hurt the league’s relations with major sponsors, suggesting he was a factor in Puma’s decision to drop its sponsorship and that his manner had “a negative impact on other national sponsors.”
But one has only to look at WPS history to see a revolving door of teams. Weeks after the Los Angeles Sol played in the league’s first championship in 2009, the franchise folded. The Atlanta Beat and Philadelphia Independence came aboard, but the St. Louis Athletica shut down – as did the FC Gold Pride – right after winning the 2010 WPS Championship. The Chicago Red Stars bowed out of 2011 – and the Western Flash signed on. No wonder it’s hard to build a following. (Never mind about the “reorganization” six months after the league launch in 2009).
It IS difficult work in a nation dominated by men’s sports that attract huge crowds, coverage, and sponsorship. But women’s soccer is really, really good. And the World Cup (yet again) showed how edge-of-your seat compelling it could be – if only packaged and marketed right. Right?
Borislow is clearly being painted as the bad guy. But you have to wonder: How could the league get to the point where one recalcitrant owner could sink the whole enterprise? And are we hearing the whole story? Borislow may not be diplomatic, but magicJack player/coach Abby Wambach recently defended him to ESPN’s Julie Foudy. The issue is clearly deeper than the financial strain caused by lawyers, pricey as that may be.
Cancelling professional soccer at this moment – necessary as it looked to the league’s governing board – is risky. If Borislow puts together compelling “friendlies” with top players (as is rumored) and/or other teams like the Boston Breakers find alternative competition for 2012, will WPS really restart in 2013?
If it does, sponsors, owners, players and fans need serious reassurance that leadership has – finally – found the secret sauce to building women’s pro soccer.